Cranberries abroad?

I had some cranberry panettone for breakfast and was amused that the box (purchased in New Jersey) called it an authentic recipe from Italy. Cranberries aren’t indigenous to Italy, and I’ve never been able to find them in any store. We had to bring our own can of cranberries for Thanksgiving last year so we could celebrate the holiday properly. Wonder if this version will ever gain popularity in Italy?

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The good witch visits again

Felice Anno Nuovo! I’ve been lax in my entries lately due to holidays and work, but it’s 2011 and a new year to write. Yesterday was the Epiphany, which celebrates the arrival of the Three Kings bearing gifts to Jesus, as well as the end of the 12 days of Christmas. It also signified the arrival of La Befana.  In Italian folklore, La Befana is an old woman (often depicted as a witch) who visits Italian children on Epiphany Eve and, like Santa Claus, fills their stockings with gifts—or coal, if they’ve been naughty! There are various stories about how La Befana came into existence, but my personal favorite is this one: the Three Kings asked La Befana to come bring gifts to Jesus, but she declined, saying she was too busy sweeping—of course, nothing is more important than house cleaning! She later changed her mind, but couldn’t find Jesus and now spends her days giving gifts to children. Michael remembers putting out slippers on the night before the Epiphany and having La Befana leave a few toys. (Yes, she flies all the way to New Jersey!) Last night, I don’t know if Alex realized that La Befana had visited our home, but he certainly enjoyed ripping the wrapping paper.

Le calze di Urbania

Our friend Luana and her family went to Urbania this year for the “Festa della Befana” which is a celebration that Michael and I attended last year. Urbania is a small medieval town close to the lovely Renaissance city of Urbino (it’s said that Urbino was spared from WWII bombing because the Allies mistakenly bombed Urbania instead). For the past decade, Urbania has branded itself as the birthplace of La Befana, similar to how Santa Claus resides in the North Pole. Children from all over Italy send letters to La Befana in Urbania. According to Samuele Sabatini, who organizes the Befana celebration in Urbania, “Babbo Natale (the Italian Santa) has a house at the North Pole, but nobody ever said where the Befana lived. So we decided that she lived here in Urbania. And the Befana has liked the location.” It’s true; Italians dressed as the good witch come from all across the country—we heard Neapolitans, Marchigiane, and Tuscans when we were there. The town hosts an annual week-long festival in early January in her honor, complete with fireworks, vendors selling local foods, and which culminates in La Befana riding down from the main bell tower to the ground, showering candy on the crowd. Tens of thousands of people attend—rain or shine.

Le Befane from all over Italy

Last year, it was a cold, rainy day, but that didn’t hamper the festival—parents and children were gleefully sampling hot roasted chestnuts, waffles (they’re like funnel cake in Italy—Americans have them for breakfast, but Italians serve them at fairs) and hot chocolate. Large calze (stockings) hung from windows and doors around the town. According to Luana, one of the stockings is 50 meters in length, making the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest stocking. A mule led a parade of men, women and children—some on stilts—dressed in colorful witch costumes. We ducked inside a café to get two cappuccinos and warm up. The place was packed with locals and tourists. After sampling some delicious coffee, we proceeded to the main piazza where the real highlight of the day was about to happen—La Befana was going to fly. As it turned out, and to the delight of all the children, dozens of different befane peered out from windows in the town hall, waving and throwing candy to the crowd below. We ducked under a large umbrella and peered up to the bell tower, where the Mayor of Urbania gave a speech. Then, the strega was lowered on ropes, appearing to fly on her broom across the piazza. A burst of fireworks followed, lighting up the darkening sky.

La Befana addresses the crowd

Urbania is the site of the national Befana festival and is the most popular in Italy. We had a wonderful experience and I hope to share it with Alex next time. For a fun read on the festival, click here: http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,596060,00.html

Buon Epifania!

 

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2010 in review

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 8,300 times in 2010. That’s about 20 full 747s.

 

In 2010, there were 59 new posts, not bad for the first year! There were 114 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 275mb. That’s about 2 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was October 9th with 1,777 views. The most popular post that day was The culture of driving.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were wordpress.com, lauradigiovine.com, facebook.com, michaeldigiovine.com, and mail.live.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for chasing cappuccinos, ortofrutta, pascucci, lemon carbonara, and chasing cappucinos.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.

1

The culture of driving October 2010
77 comments and 35 Likes on WordPress.com

2

About May 2010
16 comments

3

Contact Me May 2010
1 comment

4

Glorious Gubbio October 2010
5 comments

5

A Pascucci Pilgrimage June 2010
2 comments

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Some hometown flavor in NYC

As the first real snowfall of the season blankets Chicago, it’s a great morning to drink a cup of coffee, watch the flurries coat the trees, and reminisce about another cup of coffee. Over Thanksgiving, we were in New Jersey and went into New York City for the day. Our friends took us to Stumptown Coffee Roasters, which had recently received raves in the New York Times, because as our friend put it, “New York has everything but a decent cup of coffee.” So, we decided to test it out. Stumptown Coffee originated in my hometown of Portland, Oregon (I tried it out there years ago) and has a café in New York’s Ace Hotel, a trendy spot with a Portland vibe—full of dark oak beams, casual throw rugs (and animal pelts), and hipster baristas. We switched it up and I ordered a latte while my husband Michael tried a cappuccino. I have to say, the latte was better. The espresso was good, although not as rich and full as in Italy, but the milk was creamy. They definitely weren’t using 1%! Unfortunately, Michael’s cappuccino tasted burnt. After all that effort, too.

We watched the extremely meticulous barista measure out each spoonful of espresso from the grinder, tamp it down oh-so-carefully, and wipe off any excess grounds. He would then twirl the filter upside down to make sure the grounds were packed in tight enough, before attaching it to the espresso maker. He had the fierce concentration of a lab technician. After he brewed the coffee, another barista steamed and poured the milk (in Italy, only one person handles this task), swirling a leafy design on top of the thick foam. It was nice to see someone take such care in making a cup of coffee, but it was certainly a different experience from Italy. Italians take their coffee making just as seriously, but their meticulousness looks effortless. In one fluid motion, a good Italian barista would empty a used filter, measure out a new portion of coffee, tamp it down, attach the filter to the machine and brew it. Perhaps it’s because many baristas make their job a lifelong occupation in Italy whereas in America, being a barista is often a job to pay the bills while waiting for something better to come along. Either way, you still can’t beat a cappuccino—or a latte—in Italy.  But, Stumptown Coffee treated coffee making as an art form, and I appreciated the effort!

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Home for the holidays

We’ve headed home to the U.S. for the holidays and I’m in Chicago now. Talk about some reverse culture shock! Big SUVs, big supermarkets, big everything. Even the toilet bowls have more water in them than the ones in Italy (check out this YouTube link for a philosophical explanation:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XfOa8G8J72g)

But the main difference I’ve noticed has to do with children. We went to church last weekend with Alex and had to keep the stroller in the back room, whereas in Pesaro, people keep the babies and strollers next to the pews. In Pietrelcina, a small town in southern Italy where we lived prior to Pesaro while Michael did research, not only were there plenty of babies and strollers in church, but churchgoers talked constantly (and rather loudly!), and flowed in and out of the church like it was their home—which, in a way, it is. People in Pietrelcina feel especially blessed by Padre Pio because they’re his kin—they come from his hometown. My husband calls it a form of “Old Testament spirituality,” which differs from the “New Testament spirituality” that other devotees show toward Padre Pio, where all are Padre Pio’s spiritual kin as long as they believe in him, regardless of where they are from or who they are (Matthew’s Gospel and St. Paul’s Letters talk about this as the basis of the catholic (or universal) church).

Anyway, we attended Mass in Chicago and noticed that as soon as a baby started fussing, the parents whisk him or her to the back of the church (or to a “cry room.”) Alex particularly likes to “sing along” to the music at Mass, and so when he started doing this, I raced to the back of the church. It was so quiet in there! In Italy, when Alex fussed, we would just walk him around to calm him, and no one seemed to mind that we stayed inside. We’ve apologized to people (even the priest!) in church in Pesaro when Alex would cry and everyone looks at us like we have two heads. “But, he’s a baby! He’s supposed to cry.  It’s natural.”

We’ve noticed that the U.S. certainly has a very different “baby culture” when it comes to these public places—especially restaurants. We were able to take Alex into any restaurant (fancy or low-key) or bar in Pesaro, and that’s certainly not the case in Chicago. I feel like there’s a much clearer separation of adults and children. If you want to go to a restaurant, get a babysitter. They get babysitters in Italy as well, of course (mostly it’s la nonna, or grandma, that watches the baby), but if you prefer to take your child out with you, no one seems to bat an eye.

We’ve already begun to discover places that are baby-friendly (we had no problems going out for sushi last week), and so far everyone has been just as nice as in Italy…although strangers don’t stop us all the time on the street wanting to touch or pinch Alex’s cheeks. 🙂

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Round 1: Bar Astra vs. Nerocaffè

My two favorite bars in Pesaro for drinking a cappuccino are Nerocaffè, located in the main piazza, and Bar Astra, located at the entrance to the centro storico. Nerocaffè opened last December and has since become a very popular hangout. The interior design is beautiful—all blacks and purples and copper. It’s like a trendy New York City café, adding some needed glamour to Pesaro’s piazza. The staff is friendly and efficient, the pastries are fresh, and the cappuccinos are amazing.  The selection of aperitivi is also top-notch.

Nerocaffè

And yet, I still have an affinity for Bar Astra, the first bar we frequented when we moved to Pesaro. Bar Astra also houses a movie theater, and in the summer of 2009, they revamped the building, making it much more chic and elegant. They also added a gelateria section near the cash register, which significantly upped the business, especially during the summer months. The gelato isn’t the best in the city, but they serve a generous portion for 1.50 euros. Another bonus: you can add minutes to your cell phone here. The friendly staff, delicious cappuccinos, diverse pastries and generous aperitivi all receive an A.

Bar Astra

Still, it’s tough to pick a favorite. If I’m going for the quality of the cappuccinos, I’d say they’re equal. Both Bar Astra and Nerocaffè make creamy—but not too frothy—cappuccinos and the coffee is strong, but not bitter. In another post, I’ll talk about the criteria for judging a great cappuccino. Stay tuned!

Bar Astra vs. Nerocaffè. Winner? A tie.

 

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L’ora dell’aperitivo

Ah, the aperitivo hour in Italy, like happy hour in the U.S. but so much better.  I love bitters and Italy is full of bitter aperitif options: Aperol is a spritzer favorite in Italy and is very refreshing, combining the flavors of bitter orange, rhubarb and gentian, an alpine flowering plant. Campari is also popular—my husband ‘s favorite drink is a Negroni which combines Campari, sweet vermouth and gin. It’s too strong for my taste, but I can certainly appreciate the bitter flavor. I always buy Crodino in the supermarket (a flavorful non-alcoholic bitter that I discovered while pregnant).  In fact, when we return to Chicago I need to find a store that carries it.

Back to Italian happy hour. In addition to the bitter aperitifs, I really like how bars and cafés offer an array of appetizers—all included with the price of a drink. Many of these appetizers are beautifully presented and delicious to eat. So for 3-5 euros, I get a nice drink and an all-you-can-eat selection of delicious cheeses, pasta, fruit salad, mini pizzas, olives, or, on a recent outing, a lovely couscous dish.  One of our favorite bars is Casa Vaccaj, housed in one of the oldest edifices in Pesaro, and whose owners offer a really excellent spread of diverse appetizers: a mix of strawberries, pistachios and grapes; spinach quiche; slices of lonza (a local salt-cured pork) and slabs of parmigiano reggiano; a salad of mint, balsamic vinegar and eggplant cubes, and much more.

Another plus?  During any restaurant or café outing, you can sit as long as you like without feeling rushed. And in Pesaro, many places are very baby-friendly—even the trendy bars—which is a major plus!

How about digestivos? Those are great too and will be the subject of a future post.

 

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The power of wind

Italians like to talk about wind. Many Italians (the older generation in particular) think that too much air can be unhealthy and can cause mal di gola (a sore throat) or cervicale (cervical syndrome, which affects the neck). I’ve often seen Italians wear scarves in the middle of July, and my Italian-American husband remembers getting colds as a child and having his Italian mother wrap his neck in a handkerchief to help speed up his recovery.

I personally love rolling the windows down in nice weather, but I’ve often been out driving with Italian friends and they roll up the window to make sure there’s not too much wind blowing in, asking if the air bothers me. Up until about 10 years ago, many Italians affixed plastic wind guards over the side windows of their cars in order to prevent wind coming in when they rolled down their windows.

My husband is an anthropologist and he think this cultural fixation on wind could be a remnant from Greco-Roman times—if you read the Aeneid or the Odyssey, for example, winds are personified as gods who often blew heroes off course, which greatly affected their journeys—and their destinies. While Italians may not believe this anymore, many do think the wind affects one’s health and disposition. I was born in Rome and my American mother remembers Italians talking about the Scirocco wind, a strong Mediterranean wind that flows from the Sahara. Many of her Italian friends noted that it dramatically affected people’s moods, making them angrier or more irritable. My mom even recalls feeling edgier and more out of sorts when this hot, dry wind blew into Rome. She was always happy when it left.

Some Italians are particularly sensitive about wind and babies. We visited relatives in southern Italy in early August, and we took a walk outside with our son Alex because there was a nice breeze and we were stifling in the heat of the house. We were told to come back inside—the baby might get too much air or he might get sick! I found this very interesting since the popular American idiom getting “a breath of fresh air” means a change for the better. Of course, Americans are also fond of artificial air and many expect air conditioning when they come to Europe. I have a story about that, but will save it for another post.

Last year, Pesaro reconstructed their boardwalk and inlaid a marble compass near the pier. Appropriately, it’s an homage to all the different winds and where they originate: the Scirocco (from the Southeast), the Ostro (from the South), the Libeccio (from the Southwest), the Ponente (from the West), the Maestrale (from the Northwest), the Tramontana (from the North), the Greco (from the Northeast) and the Levante (from the East).  Now when I walk along the beach, I’ll know exactly which way the wind blows.

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Grazie!

Yesterday, I received the nice surprise of having my post on “the culture of driving” featured in WordPress.com’s Freshly Pressed section. I was a little overwhelmed with the sudden spike in traffic, but it was nice to see. I wanted to thank everyone for their comments and for visiting my blog! It’s much appreciated. More observations on Italy coming soon.

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The culture of driving

Something I appreciate about Italian drivers is that they rarely honk their horns. In America, drivers honk anytime someone is going too slow, or pulls out in front of them, or when they’re stuck in traffic (as if that will do anything), or, well, for just about any reason. In America, there’s the mentality of “Hey, I’m driving here! So get out of my way.” Despite what outsiders perceive as chaos when they navigate the streets of Italy, the traffic is much more fluid. Drivers are very aware of each other. Cars weave in and out of traffic—sometimes seeming to dart out from nowhere—but drivers here go with the flow. They realize this is how things work.

Instead of using their horns, drivers tend to rely on using their flashers. One aspect of the driving culture that is still hard for me to adjust to is speeding on the freeway. We’ll be driving in the left lane, passing a vehicle or two, and a car driving very, very fast will come up behind us, ride our bumper and flash us repeatedly so we’ll change lanes. Sometimes you see them coming up in the rearview so fast, you wonder if they’d plow right into you if you didn’t move over. It’s a little unnerving. But again, people recognize the rules of the road and most people move into the next lane, seemingly unperturbed.

While cars may honk infrequently, there is still quite a bit of noise pollution. The

A Cinquecento on the streets of Gubbio. Who wouldn't want to drive this car?

motorini are extremely loud. Many afternoons Alex will be napping, and one races down our street, waking him up, and probably all the neighbors napping after lunch! I may not miss the motorini when we leave Italy, but it’ll be hard getting used to large trucks and SUVs barreling down city streets again. I love the smaller vehicles here, especially the old Fiat Cinquecentos. There’s something to be said for the narrow streets of Italy: while more and more people are starting to drive SUVs, they have a hard time navigating the tight alleys of Italian towns and cities. I just wish they’d stay out of the centro storico!

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